The last time I had a barf bag handed to me at a movie theater was for a University of Washington screening of George Romero’s Martin, probably in 1979. I didn’t use it, but I appreciated the publicity gimmick. This kind of ploy has an old tradition; when a few audience members fainted at screenings of Frankenstein in 1931, Universal Pictures sent ambulances to stand by outside theaters in order to collect the ailing and garner press interest. John Waters used to like to say, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation,” a line that says as much about Waters as a marketer as it does about his status as a subversive moviemaker and shock-value specialist. Waters knew that even one report of viewers becoming physically sick at his movie would ratchet up interest for the subset audience that seeks out the edgiest thing.
The gimmick still works, as the pre-release chatter around Raw demonstrates. Viewers at film festivals rushed to the restrooms in mid-screening, and suddenly, this blood-soaked tale of collegiate cannibalism became a must-see. Sure enough, when the movie opened in L.A. last week, the Nuart Theater handed out air-sickness bags to attendees. A charming touch, but it somewhat overshadows the film itself, which is quite serious in its ambitions.
Raw is the feature debut for writer-director Julia Ducournau, a 35-year-old French filmmaker. Her heroine is Justine (the suitably poker-faced Garance Marillier), a drab vegetarian beginning her first year in veterinary studies; coincidentally, Justine’s older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is an upperclassman at the university. Now, I don’t know much about veterinary college, but this one seems unusual: Its students live in party-hearty dorms and undergo hazing rituals that look like outtakes from Carrie. (Having access to pig blood is a perk of veterinary school.) Part of the hazing involves forcing newbies to eat rabbit kidneys. One could assume this is a prized delicacy in France, but for Justine, it’s torture. Worse, something changes in her appetite after this upsetting incident, and she develops a taste for human flesh.
The sequences that outline Justine’s descent into cannibalism are skillful at mashing boilerplate coming-of-age material with horror, walking that fine line between growing up and throwing up. For instance, Justine, a virgin (they always are in movies like this), predictably yearns for her gay male roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella); that trope always ends badly, but especially so here. Raw also makes relevant reference to bulimia and cutting, with concern about appearance as a key topic—nowhere more so than in a sequence where actual cannibalism is made to seem less traumatic than a Brazilian wax.
There’s a long line of movies in which the anxieties of youth are filtered through a horror lens, going back at least as far as The Wizard of Oz, and including, as it happens, Martin. Strong recent examples like Let the Right One In and It Follows demonstrate that there’s plenty of life left in the subject. I am sure Ducournau has closely studied coming-of-age horror—there’s a great moment just after Justine makes the suspenseful decision to go ahead and start gnawing on a severed human finger where the music evokes one of Dario Argento’s cult slash-fests. If anything, Raw is almost too self-conscious about its metaphors; Ducournau is practically writing her own academic paper on Raw while she’s unspooling the movie.
Still, at its best, Raw gets past its artiness and touches on the truly uncanny. This can be grotesque, as in the scene where Justine finds out what happens when she ingests her own hair—a scene that surely triggered its share of festival walkouts. More truly haunting is Justine’s discovery that her own skin is betraying her, breaking out in bloody rashes and peeling off in reptilian sheets. Here, she experiences the private horror of the body’s rebellion, the knowledge that she isn’t in control of the closest part of herself. And that’s what a real coming-of-age horror movie is about. Raw, Rated R. Opens Fri., March 31 at Egyptian Theater. firstname.lastname@example.org